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Gaza protest response: Germany faces free speech dilemma

Sabine Kieselbach
June 18, 2024

Thousands of academics are calling for the resignation of Germany's education minister amid a dispute over the clearing of a pro-Palestinian protest camp.

A protester at Berlin's Freie Universität arguing with the police
A protester at Berlin's Freie Universität arguing with the policeImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

For German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzingerof the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), freedom is the foundation "for the way we live in our country, for our democracy, our constitutional state and our prosperity."

She made the comment at the launch of Germany's Science Year, which in 2024 focuses on freedom, a theme chosen to mark the 75th anniversary of Germany's Basic Law, the country's constitution.

But now more than 2,900 academics are accusing Stark-Watzinger of threatening freedom of expression and have called for the minister's resignation in an open letter.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger
Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger is under fire for her reaction to a letter of protest from university professorsImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture-alliance

How did we get here?

At the beginning of May, a pro-Palestinian protest camp on the campus of the Freie Universität Berlin (Free University Berlin) was cleared by police. Officers detained more than 70 people temporarily and started 80 criminal investigations and 79 misdemeanor proceedings, according to the police.

The students, who numbered around 150 in total, had been demonstrating against the actions of the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip. They had also tried to enter rooms and lecture halls at the university in the German capital.

In reaction to the actions of police and the university management, hundreds of academics published an open letter condemning the eviction. The academics defended the students' right to peaceful protest, including the right to occupy university grounds, the letter made clear, regardless of whether they agreed with the specific demands of the protest camp.

 A pro-Palestinian camp, with several tents and banners
The pro-Palestinian activists occupied a courtyard of the Freie Universität Berlin in MayImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

The education minister was outraged by the letter. In an interview with German daily Bild, she questioned whether the signatories respected Germany's constitution.

She apparently went even further: It was later revealed that her ministry wanted to examine whether it was possible to cut academic funding to those critical of the clearing of the pro-Palestinian camp.

The subsequent outcry among academics and politicians was strong. Some German politicians even openly questioned whether Stark-Watzinger respected the German constitution.

Walter Rosenthal, the president of the German Rectors' Conference, the association of state and state-recognized universities, said that one need not share the signatories' position to protect their livelihood — linking an opinion to access to funding is an outright violation of academic freedom.

A threat to Germany's academic reputation?

The open letter, which has since also been signed by international academics, accuses the education minister of intimidation: "Repressive reviews of academics who make public their critical stance on governmental decisions are familiar from authoritarian regimes that systematically hinder free discussion, including at universities" the statement says.

The police evicting the activists at the Berlin university
The police evicting the activists at the Berlin universityImage: Axel Schmidt/Getty Images

"Even giving the impression that free social debate is being curtailed by the state damages our democratic society and the reputation of Germany as a center of research in the world."

Well-known intellectuals such as democracy researcher Wolfgang Merkel, philosopher Rahel Jaeggi and sociologist Hartmut Rosa signed the letter.

Another signatory is Susan Bernofsky, translator and professor at New York's Columbia University. She had already experienced the occupation of her university by students in April — and criticized its evacuation by the police: "I signed the letter because I am horrified at the attempts both in Germany and in the United States to stifle and silence pro-Palestinian speech in violation of academic freedom and free speech rights."

Will US student protests about Gaza subside?

Protests critical of Israel's actions in Gaza have been called antisemitic. But Bernofsky, who is Jewish, refutes such accusations, she told DW.

Protests against the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on the population in Gaza have also been taking place at universities in many parts of the world, from Europe to Australia and Mexico.

The pressure on university management to curb these protests is mounting. Bernofsky, like many of her colleagues, is concerned that politicians want to gain control over universities.

Education Ministry's State Secretary fired

In the wake of the revelations about the possibility of funding cuts, the Education Ministry's State Secretary Sabine Döring, was dismissed on Sunday.

Stark-Watzinger claims that she was not personally involved in asking for an examination of funding requirements.

She added in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that she is "still stunned by how the terror of Hamas is one-sidedly ignored in the letter, as it leaves out the suffering of the Israeli population and the situation of Jews in Germany."

This article was originally written in German.